“The hammering, the nails, it’s all music to us.”
It’s a fitting way for Lauren Parks to describe the restoration of Miles Davis’ childhood home in East St. Louis, Illinois. Parks is one of the founders of House of Miles EStL, a non-profit formed specifically to save the deteriorating home where Miles Davis lived as a child. The non-profit wants to turn the home at 1701 Kansas Avenue into a museum and community arts center.
Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, but his family moved to a home in East St. Louis where he lived until graduating from Lincoln High School.
“When we first came to the project, you could almost feel some kind of presence in the building,” said Parks.
This week the HVAC system is being installed. Parks estimates there is at least two months of construction. The goal is to inspire the children of East St. Louis, using the most revered trumpeter of all time to remind them that greatness is possible.
“Whatever their goals are, are attainable because you had a music giant here in this home, in this city that did incredible things, revolutionary things,” said Parks. “We want our children to feel that way and just be inspired.”
Eight miles away is the Ville Neighborhood in St. Louis, which spawned international tennis champion Arthur Ashe, world-class entertainer Josephine Baker, and one of the fathers of rock 'n' roll, Chuck Berry.
“3137 Whittier. This is a sin,” said St. Louis’ Fourth Ward Alderman Samuel Moore, as he unlocked the door to a crumbling house.
The home at 3137 Whittier was owned by Berry from 1950 to 1958, the time period when his legend took flight as a songwriter and performer. The house is currently in deplorable condition, with holes in the roof and the floor, peeling paint, and rotting wood.
“We should be proud of this place but we’re not,” said Moore. “Most people in the ward don’t even know it’s here.”
The Berry house is part of a much larger problem in St. Louis: thousands of crumbling, abandoned homes and buildings.
“Twelve-hundred forty-two in my ward alone," said Moore. "From Natural Bridge to Page, from Euclid to Grand, 1242 empty buildings. When I inherited this community it was over 1800. I’ve torn down over 600 structures.”
There is a cost to preserving history. The Scott Joplin House, the one-time home of the king of ragtime, is financially supported by the state of Missouri. Almetta Jordan, site administrator of the Scott Joplin House said to save a historically significant building, someone has to make it their mission.
“You still have to have that person that’s the cheerleader for the project,” said Jordan. “Without that cheerleader, this building wouldn’t have been here.”
One of the cheerleaders for saving the Miles Davis house is Parks.
“As the saying goes, teamwork really does make the dream work, and that is what has happened with this project,” said Parks.
Alderman Moore hopes this story will get the attention of a buyer or developer, but so far no is leading the cheer to save 3137 Whittier.
For more information about the Miles Davis house, visit www.houseofmilesestl.org.